About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.
In 1990 the Trustees of Reservations prepared a pamphlet on a subject that is of increasing interest. The subject was discontinuing roads (and bridges). The subject is of increasing interest because the cost of maintaining, repairing or replacing roads and bridges is growing exponentially.
If you read early records and the minutes of town meetings long past, they are replete with the plans for building roads. With pride, presenters talked about the advantages of connecting this part of the county to that with a new road; spanning this river or that stream with a bridge. The initial building was an advantage to Berkshire; today, the upkeep can be a burden.
According to the Trustees, among the advantages of discontinuing a road are: the town is no longer responsible for the maintenance of the road; the town is relieved of liability for harm to people using the road; and, depending on local zoning, it may be impossible to build on a lot with frontage on a discontinued road. The advantage of the last isn’t immediately apparent until you consider that discontinuing a road could, therefore, be an important tool in managing growth.
So what are the disadvantages to discontinuing roads? The most obvious is inconvenience to people who rely on traversing that particular road or bridge, to abutters locked out of access to their homes, and to someone wishing to build on a lot fronting a discontinued road. In addition, state and federal highway funds may decrease if road miles decrease and an unmaintained road can cause environmental damage.
Having said all that, any town or village should weigh the cost benefit of discontinuing a road or bridge. If today the road or bridge is a byway to nowhere, supplanted by a newer road or bridge, or if just one citizen is disadvantaged but the savings are substantial, discontinuing a road may be an option. If the analysis tilts in favor of discontinuing a road, what then? Once a road is laid as a public byway, it remains public until legally discontinued. How does a town legally discontinue a road?
The simplest and most straight forward method is to place it on the town warrant and vote at Town Meeting. The Massachusetts General Laws state that “a town, at a meeting, may discontinue a town way.” It is as simple as that. There are no other requirements for notification or public hearings or even stating a reason. If the vote carries, then the road or bridge is discontinued and no longer the legal or financial obligation of the municipality.
On the other hand, the town may cease responsibility for maintenance instead of discontinuing the road or bridge altogether. This can be accomplished by the board of selectmen. However, it is a more complex process as it requires public hearings and a review of the reasons and impacts.
There are a number of complicating factors related to easements and rights of way but, in general, the act of discontinuing a road is as simple as it is controversial. Take, for example, that single citizen inconvenienced by discontinuance. He would not be pleased. But what does discontinuing a road actually mean? It means the road is no longer public, thereby ceasing maintenance and eliminating the public right of passage. It does not mean it disappears. If the road or bridge goes to a single household, in what way is that citizen disadvantaged? Obviously maintenance of that access road falls to him.
Massachusetts has instituted a set of regulations for municipalities in repairing or replacing bridges, culverts and road beds. While the state shares the costs, the requirements balloon those costs. That citizen locked out of access to his home by discontinuance and forced to assume maintenance may not be pleased, but it would be cheaper for him to maintain the road than for the town. That individual would not be subject to the same regulations as the town. The proposal to discontinue might turn adversarial or it could be mutually beneficial.
If the road was discontinued and the citizen maintained it at a much-reduced cost, the town may agree to defray the cost. There is the potential for all to be happy. Discontinuing a road and thereby halting or managing development, subdivision and building may be viewed as a positive or a negative. Where you stand depends on where you sit. Whether the road is discontinued, maintenance ceases, or the road is altered or relocated, it changes the flow throughout the village. So while no law requires notification or discussion prior to town vote, it is wise to do both: calm fears and fashion solutions to concerns in advance of the vote.
The rising costs and rapid deterioration of our roads and bridges is no small matter and all possibilities should be seriously and dispassionately discussed. Road discontinuance can be a valuable tool for managing growth and expenditures, and is a relatively easy tool to use. In determining the best course, there are resources available. The Trustees’ pamphlet is online and the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission has studied the issue and made useful suggestions.